If you’re doing DNA tests for family history, you may see lots of predicted cousin matches: 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc…..But what does that predicted genetic relationship actually mean? Learn about centimorgans, the powerful genetic genealogy unit of measure, and how it helps your research.
How DNA Tests Measure Genetic Relationships
When we are looking at genetic relationships, there are also many ways we can measure them. But ultimately, we want the testing company to tell us how likely it is that a particular individual shares a single, recent common ancestor with us. One factor in this calculation is to take into account the total amount of DNA we share with that match.
Currently, all the testing companies are reporting this sum in centimorgans (cMs). Every company reports to you the total number of shared cMs, as outlined below.
AncestryDNA: Click on the match to access the personal profile page for that match. In the second section, under Predicted Relationship, you will see the confidence level. To the right of the confidence level, you will see a grey circle with a little “i” in it. Clicking there will show you the total amount of shared cMs as well as how many pieces of DNA you share.
Family Tree DNA: On the main match page for your Family Finder results, you will see the total amount of shared cMs in the third column.
23andMe: You can see the percentage of shared DNA from the main DNA Relatives home page. To convert the percentage into centimorgans, just multiply your percentage by 68 (that will at least get you close). You can also see total shared cMs in the chromosome browser tool (go to Tools > DNA Relatives > DNA).
MyHeritageDNA: The total amount of shared DNA is shown on the main match page under the title Match Quality. MyHeritage also has a new DNA Match Review page. Click here to read more about that.
Centimorgan: A Genetic “Crystal Ball”
It is very tempting to think of a cM just like you would think of an inch or a centimeter, and for all practical purposes, that is okay. But it is actually much more complicated than that.
A cM is actually more like a crystal ball: it helps us predict how likely a piece of DNA looks exactly as it did a generation ago. This, in turn, helps us calculate how far back we should be looking for the common ancestor between two people.
But for our practical purposes, you can use the total amount of shared DNA, in combination with this chart compiled by Blaine Bettinger and the Shared cM Project, to better assess your genealogical relationship with your match based on your genetics.
To use the chart, take the total amount of shared DNA you have with a match, and look up that number in the chart to get an idea of what kind of genealogical relationship might best fit the genetics that you see. For example, if I share 69 cM with my match, we might be third cousins. But we might also be second cousins once or twice removed.
How do you figure out which one? Simply put: do genealogy research! It’s time to use traditional records and research skills to better understand the genetic clues in your family history mysteries.
My series of DNA quick reference guides can help you get the most out of your DNA tests for family history. I definitely recommend the value-priced bundle of all 10 guides. But I especially recommend the guides listed below if you’re to the point where you’re trying to understand what genetic relationships mean:
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McClellan Family Reunion, Summer 2014, Cleveland, Ohio.
A couple weeks ago, I helped host 47 people at my family reunion here in Cleveland, Ohio. Local relatives made up about half the group: the rest flew and drove in from Arkansas, Nevada and Washington state. We spent 4 days splashing in Lake Erie, driving through the countryside, visiting an Amish-run cheese house and local historic sites, kayaking, hiking in the woods, wading in the sparkling shallows of the Cuyahoga River, and visiting, eating, and visiting some more (and then eating some more). The fundraising auction in my backyard raised such an ruckus that neighbors at the other end of the block asked what in the WORLD was going on at our house that night.
One of the most surprising things about the reunion–other than my brother’s natural gifts as a comedian-auctioneer–was the degree to which it worked to communicate on Facebook. My grandparents were the only ones we needed to actually call about all the reunion plans. We sent no letters–not one!
Here are my 9 tips for organizing your family reunion on Facebook (mostly.) Some of these we did well and others we’ll do better in the future:
1.Make sure at least one member of each nuclear family is active on Facebook. You want a significant percent of relatives participating. If you’re family just isn’t on Facebook, look for other ways to be in touch (group text?).
2.Create a family Facebook page. Click here to learn how. This lets your family post reunion- and family-related items in your own secure group.
3. Reserve the date up to a year in advance. Suggest a time frame and/or a few specific dates on Facebook. Tag everyone on the post to get them to notice and respond. However, you may not get much response. At least in our family, people tend not to volunteer or comment if they’re not personally, directly being asked about something urgent. Once you’ve given people a reasonable amount of time to comment on your suggested dates (and consulted those not on Facebook), JUST PICK A DATE. Then post it (and call the non-Facebookers). Again, tag everyone so you know they see it.
4. Start advertising immediately. Those who travel some distance may need more incentive to come. It’s especially helpful when you can convince the in-laws that they want to come. Do this by catering to people’s interests and hobbies. Post pictures of places you plan to visit together, images of recipes you plan to serve, the website of the local golf course/shopping district/historic site/art gallery/amusement park or any other local attraction that might persuade people to make the trip (whether this is officially part of the reunion activities or not). Tag people in those posts and include URLs to attraction websites: “Uncle Albert, I know how much you love to golf. Why don’t you stay for an extra day and play 18 holes on this championship course?” In the media world, this is called creating “buzz.”
5. Encourage long-distance relatives to introduce themselves and their families. My aunts and uncles were amazed at how much the kids had all grown. They see us so infrequently that it was super helpful to post the kids’ names, updated pix and interests before the reunion. That way, they could talk to my son about his cello playing and my daughter about her upcoming 8th birthday. We’ve asked everyone to start sharing family news and events on the family page, not just their own page. That way we can capture the highlights of all the big family milestones before the next reunion.
6. Play travel agent. Post information about the local airport, bus route, hotels, etc, several months in advance. Encourage relatives to share their hotel information so they can stay together (hotel pool party!) or coordinate travel plans.
7. Post details about the upcoming gathering. What should people plan to bring, wear and do? Do they need to bring beach wear, walking shoes, an umbrella, a baby picture of themselves, or a T-shirt to decorate? Tell them on Facebook ahead of time. Post the initial meeting place and time, along with its address (almost EVERYONE, including the over-60s used GPS to get around while they were here). You can hand out the rest of the itinerary at the reunion, if you need to.
8. Post DURING the reunion. Offer a prize for the best picture posted during the reunion (or the most pictures posted). That tells everyone at home what they’re missing while building excitement among attendees and preserving memories for the future. When uncles are tagging their nephews in photos (and vice versa), they’re building relationships. Remembering names. “Friend-ing.” I don’t suggest posting last-minute changes in plans: when traveling, not everyone makes Facebook-checking a priority. Only do this if everyone knows to check the Facebook page frequently during your gathering.
9. Follow up. Is everyone supposed to send a donation to the reunion fund afterward, mail a card to the great-aunt who couldn’t make it, or share all their reunion pictures on a photo-sharing site? Thank the reunion hosts, planners and those who sacrificed a lot (in time or money) to be present. When is the next reunion? Whoever’s planning the next one can pick up where you left off.
Show Notes: Have you seen records from Geneanet popping up in your Ancestry hints? Here’s the answer to a Premium Member’s questions about the Geneanet records she is seeing show up as Ancestry hints. Learn how to figure out what new record hints like this are and how to decide how much weight to give them.
I received the following question from Monete, a Premium Member: What is this new thing I’m seeing on Ancestry hints, Geneanet community trees? It’s a good question, and a common one. Genealogy websites like Ancestryare adding new record collections all the time. It’s important to know how to quickly understand what the new record collection is about, where it comes from, the scope and most importantly, decide how much weight to give it.
Records Included in Ancestry Hints
It’s important to note that not all records are included in Ancestry hints. Only 10% of Ancestry® records appear as hints. So we want to keep in mind that although we’re seeing lots of new hints for records, they aren’t by any stretch of the imagination all of the records in the Ancestry collection. Hints are made up of the most popular record collections. There’s always going to be a need to continue to do your own research and to explore other records.
Where to find Ancestry Hints
You’ll find hints in a variety of places such as:
the leaf icon at the top of the screen near your account profile
attached to ancestors in your family tree
on ancestor profile pages
Ancestry hint in family tree
Reviewing and Comparing Ancestry Hint Information
View the hint by clicking the Review button. In the case of hints from the Geneanet Community Trees Index, you’ll see the pop-out panel prompting you to evaluate the record.
Click the Review button to reveal the side panel.
Compare the details of the hint to the known details in your ancestor’s profile by clicking the CompareDetails slider button. This allows you to review and compare each piece of information.
In a case like this where we are unfamiliar with the record collection, it’s important to learn more about it before we compare and make decisions about the information. That way, as you evaluate each piece of information you are considering adding to your family tree, you will have a much better idea whether you trust the source, and you’ll be better able to interpret the information it is providing.
To learn more about the record, it’s a logical next step to click the hyperlinked record name at the top of the panel. However, in this case we notice it just brings up to a full-size page where we are again being prompted to review and add the information to our tree.
Use the Ancestry Card Catalog
When you run across something like this, the first thing to keep in mind is that this record collection they are referencing is obviously part of their total collection, which means we should be able to find it in the card catalog. That’s the best place on Ancestry to learn more about it. Copy the name of the record and then go the Card Catalog. You’ll find the Card Catalog in the menu under Search > Card Catalog. It can be helpful to access the Card Catalog in a new browser tab so that you can jump back and forth between the catalog entry and the record you’re reviewing. You can open it in a new tab by right-clicking on Card Catalog when selecting it from the Search menu.
The card catalog is something that we don’t think of using that often. But really, we should because this is where all the other records are that are not coming up in our hints are listed. It’s also a really terrific resource to tell us more about the record collections that we’re running into as we’re doing our research and evaluating our hints.
On the Card Catalog page, paste the name of the record collection that you copied in the Title search box. If for any reason it doesn’t come up right away, try typing just the keywords into either the Title box or the Keywords search box.
You should see the collection in the search result. When you hover over the collection title it tells you when it was published, if it was recently updated, and the beginning sentences of the collection description. You will see what type of record it is by the category in which Ancestry placed it, and get a sense of the size of the collection.
Searching the name of the record collection in the Ancestry Card Catalog
In the case of Geneanet, the category is family trees. So, without knowing anything more about it, we would expect this is probably user-contributed information, rather than, let’s say, a census record created by the government, or a birth record recorded by a pastor in a church. These family trees were created by many other genealogists. They may or may not include source citations or even be accurate.
Let’s learn even more about the collection. Click the title of the record collection. The next page will feature search fields and related records. Skip that for now and scroll down to the bottom of the page. This is where you really get to the heart of things about the collection. First you’ll see SourceInformation. Basically, this is saying Ancestry is the source (that’s where you found the hint) and Ancestry got it from Geneanet.
Next you’ll see the About section. This will help us determine the original purpose of the collection, how it was created, and so on. The About section tells us that this is an online database. And it tells the original data came from the Geneanet Community Trees Index in Paris, France.
Next you’ll find Using this Collection which provides an overview of the kind of information you can expect to find in the records. Next is Collectionin Context. This explains “Geneanet was created in 1996 as a way to connect genealogical resources. They use a unique, collaborative model to share family resources while building community. Genealogists, both amateur and professional, are connected with users and genealogical societies. Anyone may upload content.”
“Anyone may upload content” is the key phrase here. People add information to family trees for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are just testing out a theory and they aren’t even sure it’s accurate. And many people copy and paste information from other people’s trees. All of this means that we can only use this information as clues, not as facts. We must do our own research and homework to find the records that back up the assertions made in the record. Family tree records if used unwisely could easily introduce errors into your family tree.
Finally, in the About section we find the Bibliography which includes a clickable link over to the original sources for these records: Geneanet. Take a moment to visit the site. You can also learn more by some quick googling. Typically, companies like this are going to be listed on Wikipedia pages as well. That’s a that’s a good place to get a basic summary about when was this company founded, find out when it was purchased by the big genealogy website, if it is currently active, and the main website link. All that kind of stuff we can typically find over in the right-hand kind of summary column on the Wikipedia page.
Using and Managing Ancestry Hints
Hints can be great clues, but they can also put rabbit holes in your genealogical path and derail your research goals. This hint might not be your top priority right now. It might not be the most important aspect of your ancestor’s life. Or it might be super interesting, and in that case you can go for it. But I encourage you not to get addicted to just responding to hints. It’s OK to put it on the back burner, leave the hint and don’t even deal with it. You can mark it Maybe and then come back to it later. But don’t let it sidetrack you from your research goals.
That’s the thing about genealogy. It is becoming more and more automated. Have you found that it just feels like it’s happening more and more on its own? It’s sort of being fed to us through the automation, the machine learning, that’s happening on these websites. However, first and foremost, we need to keep our brains engaged. We need to be the one who does the evaluation and ultimately makes the decision as to what we think is accurate about our ancestor and our family history.
In the case of Geneanet, Wikipedia tells us it was created in France and ultimately was acquired by Ancestry in August 2021. We saw on the Card Catalog entry that the index was published on Ancestry in 2022. So, we are looking at information coming from an index. We’re not looking at the actual record. These records are housed on the Geneanet website. You can access the actual record by clicking the View on Geneanet link on the Ancestry record hint page